21 February 2019
The injured dolphin Hope, photographed on Jan. 30. Photo: Cetacean Ecology Lab
The injured dolphin Hope, photographed on Jan. 30. Photo: Cetacean Ecology Lab

Injured white dolphin reflects lack of social responsibility

In mid-January, a young male Chinese white dolphin, recently named Hope, was seen after it had been severely injured by a boat’s propeller off the southwest coast of Lantau Island.

Our research team from the Cetacean Ecology Lab at The Swire Institute of Marine Science at the University of Hong Kong performed a close visual assessment of the animal on Jan. 30.

The first thing we noted when approaching the injured dolphin was the evident severe deterioration in its overall physical condition.

Hope had lost a lot of weight since our previous sighting on Jan. 26. The under-skin layer of fat, called blubber, that is crucial to retaining dolphins’ overall physiological functions had substantially thinned.

Its neck is now visibly narrowed, and one can easily distinguish the cranium (the part of skull that holds the brain) from the rest of the body. This is not how a healthy dolphin looks and is indicative of advanced starvation.

While Hope’s body tries to fight off infection and cope with its severe injuries, its nutritional demands are obviously greater than under normal circumstances.

However, its movements are seriously impaired by the severe injuries, compromising its nutritional intake. In simple terms, the animal is starving, and this only makes its overall struggle for survival more difficult.

Later that afternoon we learned that the injured dolphin is seen almost daily near Tai O Bay, where it appears very early in the morning and approaches local small fishing boats.

We have learned that several local fishermen share with the injured dolphin a portion of their daily catch. This is a very touching gesture, and it is probably in part thanks to this provisioning by local fishermen that the dolphin has not yet starved to death.

Our photographic close-up inspection of the wounds Friday gave cause for great concern.

The large cut at the base of the fluke has widened by between one and two inches, and the backbone of the animal is now exposed. The tissue around this area is necrotic and decomposing.

Elsewhere on Hope’s body, the previously healthy skin is now covered with numerous lesions, indicating that its immune system is now substantially weakened.

At present, there is probably still enough blood supply to the fluke to prevent it from turning completely necrotic, but its condition will only deteriorate further if left unattended.

There is no doubt that the fluke will eventually necrotize, and if so, it will simply fall off. This is what happens to marine mammal victims of boat strikes, leading to a long and unspeakably painful death.

Over two weeks have passed since Hope was first seen off the Tai O peninsula, and what we have witnessed in these past two weeks is an acute case of animal welfare gone terribly wrong.

First, our call for a swift rescue operation fell on deaf ears. Several boats were dispatched on Jan. 16, but as night approached, the operation had, understandably, to be discontinued.

The next day, however, local authorities were not ready to provide any further assistance.

The same day, local dolphin watch operators in Tai O were accused of inflicting the injury — a completely unfounded claim based on no evidence whatsoever.

A major internet-based hysteria campaign was stirred up, which prevented a rational assessment and a prompt response.

Emotions and gross misjudgment of Hope’s condition by an apparent “expert” hampered any further progress during what is now over two weeks of the animal’s unspeakable pain and suffering.

Two weeks of inertia by local authorities. Two long weeks of potentially fatal procrastination.

These two weeks were tainted with a major misunderstanding of some very basic concepts. The issue of animal welfare was confused with animal conservation, and the appropriate response needed to help this injured dolphin was completely derailed.

This sad case never had anything to do with conservation as such.

It was not about the removal of a free-ranging dolphin from its natural environment, but it had everything to do with helping a suffering animal injured by humans — a living creature with feelings, emotions and a capacity to suffer pain similar to our own.

As I look back at how events unfolded over the past two weeks, one other aspect becomes increasingly apparent. During this period, the case of the suffering animal became something of far wider dimensions; it became a matter of broader public understanding and social responsibility, or perhaps lack of it.

It is a moral issue where we as a civilised society, we the citizens of Hong Kong, failed.

Few of us would think twice if we came across an injured dog or cat lying on the street; we would pick the creature up and take it to a vet or call the SPCA. Hardly anyone with humane feelings would think twice before doing so.

If a truck were to hit one of the feral cattle on Lantau, we would not leave the animal unattended and let it suffer for days. We would call a specialised service to help, even if the help would have to end with euthanasia.

That would be the only humanely responsible thing to do. That’s what people who care for other living beings feel compelled to do.

Why, then, are the wild dolphins of Hong Kong, the very animals seen as a local biodiversity icon, being treated differently? Don’t they deserve, at the very least, similar humane treatment?

We have in Hong Kong self-proclaimed crusaders who pledge to dedicate their lives to saving the Hong Kong dolphin population.

We hear frequently that their love of these animals is boundless. This love seems indeed boundless at times and reaches levels that compromise what should matter most — logic and rational thinking.

This is, as the saying goes, loving something to death; and as we have seen in the past two weeks, it can be literally so.

Clearly, there is a need for a proper marine mammal rescue protocol to be developed in Hong Kong. Once given a rigorous professional review and approved, it should be adopted and obeyed by all concerned parties.

There must be a way for humans and animals to coexist in the coastal waters of Hong Kong, and there is plenty of space for everyone to meaningfully contribute while striving to achieve the common goal.

In doing so, however, logical, rational thinking has to take the lead.

In Hope’s case, the position of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society can serve as an excellent example. Although fundamentally against captivity, it quickly noted the specific conditions and recognised the urgency of the matter.

No ideological agenda or personal belief was put on display, but rational thinking was applied in the context of the fast unfolding events.

There was no time for deliberation; there was a need for action based on logic and realistic assessment of the circumstances at the time.

I can only wish that all other players can soon follow the example of the Sea Shepherd Society and put rational thinking before their personal agenda or institutional bureaucratic constraints.

There is still hope, I hope …

– Contact us at [email protected]


Continuous deterioration of the wound at the base of the fluke is seen in the past two weeks. Photo: Cetacean Ecology Lab

Various skin disorders have begun to spread on Hope’s body, indicating its immune system has substantially weakened. Photo: Cetacean Ecology Lab

Associate Professor, The Swire Institute of Marine Science School of Biological Sciences, The University of Hong Kong

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